April 6th, 2009

jamie stewart

The Panorama appreciation society

It can de difficult to express just how frustrating it is, now and again, to be a journalist in a region that lacks so many basic facets of personal liberty. I'm both deliriously happy, and a little ashamed, to read the synopsis of Panorama: Slumdogs and Millionaires, which will be screened by the BBC in the UK in two hours time, for the highly respected, international current affairs show has chosen to gather its tanks on the lawns of Dubai's migrant labour market.

I'm happy, because, like hundreds of thousands across Dubai, I walk in the shadows of the labourers from the Indian sub-continent (almost) everyday, and while I can't begin to claim to know their way of life, I know of the impossible situation that these men face. I know of their exploitation, while being acutely aware of the glamorous reputation that Dubai manages to convey on the world stage - what Panorama's Ben Anderson calls, "one of the greatest PR triumphs of the past 20 years."

And this too is the source of my shame. As a journalist in Dubai predominantly covering the construction industry, should it not be my job to write the story that Ben Anderson will have the privilege of telling in two hours time? Well, yes, it is. So do we? Well, yes, we do.

Last July, I wrote and we published this article, passionately supportive of the introduction of a minimum wage for Dubai's oversea's labour force. It was very well received; The merest mention of exploitation during an interview I conducted with a local recruitment agent roughly six months ago drew a barrage of criticism from our readers aimed at the poor man. It was a slip of the tongue, though a foolish one; And only last week, our Bahrain editor Ben Millington wrote this excellent piece, exposing the exploitation of migrant labour in fellow GCC nation Bahrain.

To look back even further, our print magazine, which used to be produced in newspaper format, was ordered to become a magazine a couple of years back, after leading with the story that more labourers had died in a single year on the UAE's construction sites, than people had died in the same year in Iraq as a result of the US-led occupation. The report led to our then heroic news editor working closely with Human Rights Watch, aiding the group with research for its paper Building Towers, Cheating Workers.

Many of my interviewees - CEOs, chairmen, etc, have been extremely aware of the conditions in which the workers - often their employees - live. And some of these captaiins of industry, believe it or not, appear to be good men. The problem then is one of economics, as opposed to conscience, or lack of.

With the government maintaining such a large stake in the construction industry, it sets the benchmark in terms of wages. In doing so, its companies, privately owned in theory but in reality little more than an additional branch of government, can bid for contracts based on the wages they choose to pay. They are therefore able to sharply undercut any firm foolhardy enough to attempt to win business while paying its employees a fair wage. The inevitable result of this unregulated bidding war - all hail globalisation  - is that he who dares to exploit the most, remains in business.

You may be earning the right to build and profit from the construction of a gleaming tower that will rise to scrape the edge of the sky, but are you prepared to auction off the dignity of men, in their thousands, in the process? Those who wish to survive in this business, are, and quite often do.

So as I say, we have tried to do our bit. Again, however, to get at the root cause of this exploitation, we must focus on the lack of basic human rights within the state in question. These workers have no voice, no right to protest, or collectively bargain. Their cries go unheard. As their voice-in-waiting, it is the media who should be champing at the bit to fight the good fight for these poor people, yet if you push too far, and threaten NOT to toe the line, you are out.

And this is where the inherent, in-grained, institutionalised stench of self-censorship comes in. Publish the wrong story, convey - in nothing but good faith - the wrong point of view, or, god forbid, criticise the ruler, and it is not just the journalist who is cast into the Gulf without a paddle, but the publication, and most likely the entire publishing company as well.

Like I say, it's frustrating. I remember hearing an American journalist expressing regret that, in her opinion, journalism "failed to ask the right questions" in the aftermath of 9-11, a fact which she felt contributed, ultimately, to the subsequent invasion of Iraq on a trumped-up WMD charge. Tomorrow, after I am able to download and watch tonight's episode of Panorama from some unnamed source, I may well be asking myself: "Do I ask the right questions?"

The difference is that, in the US, you can ask the question...and you can also print the answer. But in certain other states, the "good" journalist is defined through good behaviour - not good journalism. Within a system that is at best unsentimental, it's funny how being "good" can be defined in such very different ways.

*Further to this post, there is an excellent brief interview to accompany the Panorama synopsis here, between Ben Anderson and Dubai-based recruitment agent Almass Pardiwala. Mr Pardiwala - I sincerly hope that you remain Dubai-based after this evening's broadcast.

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